At a time when municipalities are looking to shed anything extraneous, the Dane County town of Rutland stands out. It owns a church.
Well, a former church.
Rutland Center Church, erected in 1852 by a Protestant sect called The United Brethren in Christ, once was part of Rutland Center, a bustling stagecoach stop three miles south of the village of Oregon. The community had about 400 residents and anticipated a population boom if the railroad went through.
Alas, the railroad bypassed Rutland Center, and growth halted in the mid-1860s, said Gerald Neath, a local resident who’s researched the church.
Regular church services ceased in 1912, although the building continued to be used intermittently for religious purposes. By 1974, the cemetery association caring for the property dissolved and turned over all assets to the town of Rutland.
“There wasn’t a lot of interest in the church, but people were still being buried in the cemetery, so something had to be done to save it,” said Myron Bacon, a former town chairman.
The town has been responsible for maintaining the property ever since.
“It’s an unusual situation,” said Dale Beske, town chairman. “But it hasn’t been used for religious purposes for more than 40 years, so really we’re preserving a historic building, not operating a church.”
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Taxpayers aren’t out much at all, other than minor expenses such as the cost of electricity to power security lights at the cemetery. The town still sells cemetery plots, with mowing and maintenance expenses paid out of that fund.
As for the church, town residents came together 10 years ago to try to save the deteriorating structure. It was one of the earliest churches in Dane County, and it’s the only structure remaining from Rutland Center, which once boasted a post office, hotel, grocery store and blacksmith shop.
Volunteers have spent about $85,000 over the last decade restoring it. No taxpayer money was used. Significant funding came from the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission and the Edwin E. and Janet L. Bryant Foundation. The latter is based in Stoughton and focuses much of its charitable giving on community projects in Dane County.
The volunteers now hope to rent the church for weddings, funerals, recitals or meetings. More than 200 people toured the renovated church last month during an open house.
“We didn’t want to go to all this work and then just have it sit there,” said Bacon, co-chairman with Mark Hanson of Friends of the Rutland Center Church.
In its day, the church could seat about 120 people in its 30 pews. That equates to about 90 people today, Hanson said. “We tend to be a little bigger than the people who lived in 1850, to put it politely,” he said.
More details about the church can be found at www.rutlandchurch.org.
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